01/23/2013 12:30 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

Indian Country Loses Three Great Leaders

Perhaps there are many people in America who do not know of the three great Native Americans I am about to eulogize, but all three passed away within two weeks of each other, and all three were champions for Indian rights all of their lives.

Wayne L. Ducheneaux was an old-time Indian cowboy who always wore his black Stetson hat and favored a rather large handle bar mustache. And as some of his adversaries found out, he was one tough S.O.B.

Ducheneaux served as President of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe for a total of 8 years. His Lakota name was Itazipa Owotonia which translates to mean Straight Shooter and in his political career and later when he served as the director of the Cheyenne River Housing Authority, he lived up to that name. For 17 years he fought for good housing for his people locally and for all Native Americans nationally.

Ducheneaux was elected as President of the National Congress of American Indians in 1989 and when he arrived in Washington to oversee the largest and oldest Indian organization in America, he found it in shambles. With the help of a fellow tribal member, A. Gay Kingman, a dynamic lady, they saved NCAI from going under and turned it around so that to this day it is a powerful and viable organization representing most Indian tribes in America.

Ducheneaux was buried on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation on December 29, 2012.

David Lester served as executive director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes from 1982 until his death on December 26, 2012. Of CERT he said that its mission is to help tribes use their energy resources to develop their local economies and to assert their rights to self-governance and their sovereign rights to control their land bases. He said, "CERT has battled with many federal agencies in fulfilling its mission." He was particularly effective in exposing the theft and corruption within the U. S. Government of the natural resources of the Indian tribes and the lack of orderly accounting of these resources.

He firmly believed that energy resources should lie with the tribe and that the federal government's role should change from controlling the resources to supporting tribal efforts to manage their own resources.

Lester became a strong advocate of Indian businesses and initiated a national award for successful Native American owned businesses. He established The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development in Los Angeles and named the annual award the Jay Silverheels Achievement Award after the actor who portrayed Tonto in the Lone Ranger movies. I was fortunate enough to be given the Jay Silverheels Award on September 24, 1992.

Lester, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, died on December 26, 2012 in Denver, Colorado.

Charles Blackwell, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, was the first Native American ever appointed by his tribe to serve as Ambassador to the United States Government. At the time, Chickasaw Governor Bill Anoatubby said that Mr. Blackwell "was a man of vision and well suited for the position."

Blackwell earned a law degree from the University of New Mexico in 1972. He then worked for the American Indian Law Center and also served as the Associate Director of the Special Scholarship Program in Law for American Indians where he is credited with helping more than 700 American Indians and Alaska Natives gain entrance in law schools all over the United States.

He was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS where he served as the only Indian on that Council until 2001.

In an article Blackwell wrote for the Chickasaw (OK) Times he said:

Vision is a combination of wisdom, strength, courage, and generosity. Vision provides insight into the past so that you may define your present, vision gives you inspiration on what you want to do with your future. Your vision can bring you happiness, motivation, and self-determination for doing the best with and for yourself, your family and your Chickasaw people.

Blackwell died in Washington, D.C. at age 70. A memorial service will be held for him on January 26, 2013 at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

I feel deeply the loss of these three great Native Americans. I knew each of them and as a newspaper publisher, often had the pleasure of reporting on their activities or of interviewing them for articles concerning important issues and happenings in Indian country.

Each had his own way of leading and they all believed in the old saying, "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way."

And as many government bureaucrat discovered over the years, if they stood in their path while they were trying to move their people forward they would not only be stomped into the ground by the three of them, but they would think they had been run over by a herd of buffalo when all of their friends and followers caught up to them.

These three good men and great leaders will be missed badly in Indian country and as Walter Cronkite used to say, "Hece tu welo."

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at